Featured Birds: Northern Mockingbirds

Mockingbirds are superb mimics that can imitate all kinds of bird, frog, and insect calls as well as mechanical sounds, urban noises, and anything else they hear in their environments. A mockingbird’s capacity to improvise is so extensive that he’ll sing many of his song types only once a season, so both human listeners and female mockingbirds never quite know what will come out of his beak next.

That variety is what attracts females. Mockingbird songs (which are also occasionally sung by females, though not as persistently or loudly) are used in attracting a mate but probably have little or no role in territorial defense.

Even with some noisy elements, mockingbird songs are pleasant for us to hear except when an unattached and desperate male sings the entire night through close to an open bedroom window. Small wonder the mockingbird has been named the state bird for five states.

Why are female mockers most attracted to the males that sing the most songs? The number of songs is a good measure of how many life experiences a male has had—of his age and the situations he’s survived. This suggests how successful he has been, and how successful he’s likely to be during the coming nesting period. Many mockingbirds remain together as a pair year-round, defending a feeding territory in winter as well as their breeding territory in spring. And some mockingbirds remain as a pair as long as they both survive. Other mockingbirds remain together as a pair only during the nesting season, and choose new mates the following year.

Mockingbirds eat lots of fruit, which they don’t like to share. Some chase away other fruit eaters, such as Cedar Waxwings, and have even been known to kill waxwings. Mockingbirds also require a lot of animal protein which they get from insects.

They have a curious behavior shown most often when feeding on the ground: they raise and open their wings, flashing large white wing patches. Many scientists say this flashing behavior may help them feed by scaring up insects. Even though mockingbirds spend so much of their lives in towns and cities, often in our backyards, few ever visit feeders. But they do often come to birdbaths, so if you want to see them up close and personal, a birdbath may be very useful.